By Will, George F.
Republicans convened in Philadelphia in a spirit of brotherly and sisterly love. This amity, although repulsive to journalists, is itself news. The party has avoided internecine strife only intermittently since 1912.
That year Teddy Roosevelt decided he wanted another term in the White House, which was inconveniently occupied by his chosen successor and--this was about to change--friend William Howard Taft. Roosevelt failed to wrest the nomination from Taft and the party conservatives, but he ran anyway, thereby helping elect Woodrow Wilson. The incumbent president finished third.
The civil war between conservative and liberal Republicans (subsequently labeled "moderates" by sympathetic media trying to be helpful) flared up again when President Taft's son the conservative Sen. Robert Taft three times (1940, 1948, 1952) failed to win the party's presidential nomination. Then from the podium of the 1960 convention, Barry Goldwater, successor to Taft as the conservatives' pinup, challenged conservatives to "take this party back." They did so in 1964, at a fratricidal convention that thunderously booed Nelson Rockefeller's podium appearance. In 1976 Ronald Reagan almost wrested the nomination from President Gerald Ford, who had made Rockefeller his vice president.
The feuding that has roiled Republican conventions off and on since 1912 went off the boil when Reagan was nominated in 1980. The only way to rekindle the animosity this year would have been for Bush to choose a running mate who supports abortion. Which of course is why, with comic solemnity, The New York Times, and others who wish woe for Republicans, urged him to do that.
Relative to the temper of the various times, and to the content of conservatism in those times, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney may be the party's most conservative ticket since 1964 (Goldwater and Bill Miller) or even since 1924 (Calvin Coolidge and Charles G. Dawes). But theirs is not the insurgency conservatism of 1980. One reason Republicans are so relaxed is that they no longer live with the constant strain of pretending to believe the things they decreasingly believed between the rise of Reagan and the fall of Newt Gingrich.
Gone is the vow to abolish whole departments, especially Education. Gone is the adversarial stance toward the welfare state. Gone--washed away by the tidal wave of budget surpluses--is the sense of scarcity that reinforced conservative interest in limiting government. In the 1990s conservatism had two genuinely radical proposals for domestic reform, proposals that would have fundamentally altered the political culture. Term limits for members of Congress would have ended careerism, today's strongest motive for entering, and for particular behavior in, politics. A flat tax would have taken the tax code out of play as an instrument for dispensing political favors, and would have put out of business a parasite class of tax lawyers and lobbyists in Washington. Today neither proposal has a pulse.
Still, the political tide is running toward conservatism. …